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Sri Ramakrishna had carefully prepared his disciples for a life of renunciation. A wonderful truth that Sri Ramakrishna taught was that God was “here” and not “there.” Most ordinary people believed that God was somewhere far away, but Ramakrishna taught that God was within every soul. He illustrated this with his favorite parable: A man in the dead of the night woke up his neighbor for a light to light his own fire at home but the neighbor said, “Why, you have a lighted lantern in your own hand!” The man was looking for the light elsewhere failing to recognize that he had it all along with him.
It was only after his father’s death in 1884, that Narendranath felt that God was “here and not there”. His spiritual education and experiences progressed more rapidly from that point onward. He still attended to some of his family affairs, especially the law suit brought by his aunt (he eventually won the law suit but the process drained a lot of his family’s resources – whatever meager amount that had remained). By the time Sri Ramakrishna passed away in 1885, Narendranath had already decided on a path towards renunciation. And Sri Ramakrishna had made him the leader of all the disciples.
When Narendranath had protested for having given such a responsibility, the Master had whispered in his years in his weak voice, “Teaching my gospel to others is in your bones, Narendra!” Before his death Ramakrishna had transferred his spiritual powers to Vivekananda and told him to take care of the disciples as well as continue to teach them his gospel. He also whispered, “By the force of the powers transferred by me, great things will be done by you.”
After the death of Sri Ramakrishna, his twelve apostles set up a mission in Baranagore, near Calcutta. The rent and daily requirements of the monks were donated by a generous benefactor. Narendranath was still conflicted with another issue that bothered him. That was the welfare of his mother and younger brothers. Again, willing benefactors helped his family with the basic needs, but Narendra was torn between duty to his mother and his desire to renounce the worldly pleasures and embrace the vast spiritual experience.
After their Master had died, the disciples had taken the oath of chastity and poverty, and adorned ochre robes. But most of the other disciples were content in staying in Baranagore and live the life of monks with daily routines and meager existence. Narendranath inspired his brother monks to think outside the box. Instead of thinking within the realm of Hindu philosophy and Vedanta, he brought them books from philosophers from around the world. Along with Sanskrit texts they studied Greek philosophers and others like Desrates, Kant, Hegel and Locke.
Parivrajaka - The Wandering Monk
This world is in chains of superstition.
I pity the oppressed, whether man or woman, and I pity more the oppressors.
But Narendranath was restless and decided to tour India and feel the love of the people of India. He went on foot, bullock carts or by train (when some generous person paid for his ticket). He stayed with whoever invited him to stay with them as long as they wanted him to stay. He went by the name Vividishananda or sometimes Satchidananda. He wanted to undertake this journey alone without the other disciples. In 1890 he permanently left Baranagore and for the next five years (until he went to America in May of 1893) wandered the entire country, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. Other than a change of ochre robes and a water jug (komandalu), he also carried one copy each of the Bhagavad-Gita and The Imitation of Christ by Thomas ' Kempis.
He befriended many people during his epic journey. Some were rich and many were poor. People were enamored by his knowledge as well as his command over many languages. His magnificent countenance added to the mystery and intrigue. He also befriended a Raja Ajit Singh of Khetri, ruler of a small kingdom who was very supportive of his cause. It was the Raja who gave Narendranath the name Vivekananda.
Vivekananda's travels took him all over the country. He did this at a leisurely pace, not hurrying through his discovery of India. In his journey he truly felt the heart and the pulse of India. His travels as the wandering monk (parivrajaka) consolidated his beliefs. Witnessing the plight of the poor and the state of religion (especially Hinduism) in India he made his decision as to what was ailing in India. When he saw the reality of the degradation of India compared to its glorious past, he was moved to tears.
First and foremost, he blamed the upper class Hindus for discriminating based on caste in the so called 'don't touchism,' a phrase coined by Vivekananda to describe the degradation of this class. When the poor untouchable class is considered as polluted, there is little hope for them. 'Hopelessly they were born, hopelessly must they remain' he observed. The upper class Hindus misused the theory of karma to explain the birth status of the unfortunate lower classes of people. Exploitation of this servant class had gone on unopposed leading to ignorance of an entire segment of people belonging to the Hindu religion.
Secondly, Swami Vivekananda felt that to uplift the lower classes and bring them out of their miserable plight, the only solution was education. 'Priest-power and foreign conquests have trodden them down for centuries, and at last the poor of India have forgotten that they are human beings' In serving the poor and the masses, Vivekananda found the 'Shiva' he was looking to serve for the rest of his life. He felt that education was willfully confined to the privileged few, deliberately creating an underclass of people who then can be easily relegated to the servitude of the very same privileged class. The cycle had to be broken if there was any hope for India.
Thirdly, he was distressed as to how Indians had willingly adopted the ritualism but not the substance, the form of worship but not its meaning. Even among his brother-monks he feared the message of his Master had been lost to some extent.
'If you want any good to come, just throw your ceremonials overboard and worship the Living God, the Man-God ' every being that wears a human form ' God in His universal as well as individual aspect. The universal aspect of God meant his world, and worshipping it means serving it ' this indeed is work, not indulging in ceremonials'..Whether rice-plate should be placed in front of God for ten minutes or half an hour ' that is lunacy'.Now the Lord is having toilet, now He is taking His meals, now He is busy on something else we know not what'.And all this while the Living God is dying for want of food, for want of education'..Spread ideas ' go from village to village, from door to door ' then only there will be real work'Take that up, forget your own self for it, be mad over the idea. Bring it all together.'
'No religion on earth preaches the dignity of humanity in such lofty strain as Hinduism, and no religion on earth treads upon the necks of the poor and the low in such a fashion as Hinduism. We have brains but no hands. We have the doctrine of Vedanta but we have not the power to reduce it into practice. In our books there is the doctrine of universal equality, but in work we make the great distinctions. It was in India that unselfish and disinterested work of the most exalted type was preached, but in practice we are awfully cruel, awfully heartless ' unable to think of anything besides our own mass-of-flesh bodies.'
Swami Vivekananda thus became a proponent of practical, workable Vedanta called the 'living Vedanta.' Other reformers of the late 19th century were sending mixed messages to the people and failed to live by their own examples. Pundits had distorted the meanings of Upanishads to their own advantages. Vivekananda challenged them all.
It is not joy nor sorrow,
But that which is between,
It is not night nor morrow,
But that which joins them in. ' Swami Vivekananda.
Swami Vivekananda was passionate about 'bringing it al together.' For criticizing Hinduism he was criticized in return, as advancing western style 'socialism' in India. But he did not back down in the face of powerful opposition from the establishment. He was relentless in pursuing his 'work' as he had promised his guru Sri Ramakrishna. He also went against the establishment by criticizing Hindu treatment of Muslims. He derided the term mlechchha, a term used to describe the people who practiced Islam or Christianity and thus not worthy of associating with.
At the same time Vivekananda defended Hinduism against Christianity. He showed the Christian monks that they had understood little about Christ and Christianity. He felt Christian missionaries were dishonest. Of all the foreign rulers India had endured in its history, the British had done the most disservice to India and Hinduism, he felt.
Vivekananda had practiced two fundamental principles taught to him by Sri Ramakrishna. One was to maintain a peaceful nature and the other was absence of pride. Swami Vivekananda was proud of his inheritance of knowledge he had been bequeathed. To this he had added massive knowledge he had gathered on his own. He was proficient in Sanskrit grammar to challenge any scholar. At the same time he could discuss Darwin's theory of evolution with much eloquence. He was able to compare philosophy of the west with that of Upanishads because of his extensive reading of world philosophy.
In his speeches he was known to switch from a calm melodious rendition of philosophy to an emotional speaker especially when he was talking about the poor in India. From a picture of peaceful countenance, radiating tranquility, sometimes he would transform into an angry and sad man flushed with tears that could surprise the listeners. Onlookers were able to feel the level of emotion the Swami felt while discussing topics which were close to his heart.
Along the way Vivekananda developed intimate friendship with many people. He kept in touch with them through letters. Most of those letters have been published and this gives us an insight into this sannyasin's mind and heart. Just because he had taken the vow of renunciation, he did not feel he should be devoid of all feelings. He did not consider himself a 'dry monk.' During his wanderings he also had seriously considered a total renunciation and complete withdrawal from the world. His mind was very conflicted because such an act would be contrary to
what his life's mission of helping the downtrodden demanded.
Vivekananda developed a close relationship with a stationmaster, who later became his disciple. His name was Sharat Chandra Gupta. He felt closeness to this man that he had not felt for any one else, not even his fellow monks. Later Sharat Chandra Gupta was initiated to a life of renunciation by Swami Vivekananda and was named Swami Sadananda. Another close friendship he had developed was with Raja Ajit Singh of Khetri, whom he had first met in Mt. Abu. It was the Raja who not only bore his expenses for his travel to America but also took the welfare of Vivekananda's mother and brothers who were living under wretchedly poor conditions in Calcutta (Vivekananda felt guilty that he was not able to provide for his mother and brothers and asked the Raja for help, showing how close their friendship had been). Vivekananda expressed immense sadness at a later date, when the Raja died in a freak accident (1901).
Vivekananda attracted an extraordinary following as he travelled through the country. People gathered not only to hear him talk on Vedanta or about the pathetic conditions of the poor, for whose causes he championed, but also to see him. His majestic personality and his deep voice and calm demeanor attracted as many people as his message did. When he left the town or village he had stayed in, there was a sense of loss among the people. They would come in a procession and follow him as long as they could, sometimes for miles and then reluctantly bid him goodbye.
His relationships with people both of higher status in life as well as the most downtrodden and his spiritual energy and love, were the basis of his 'living Vedanta.' Vedanta was not an abstract, unattainable goal pursued only by the intellectuals by reading scriptures. It is something that can be practiced daily, in greater or lesser dimensions, during everyday life.
'I look behind and after
And find that all is right
In my deepest sorrows
There is a soul of light.' - Swami Vivekananda
During his travels in India, he also had to endure much sad news. Some of his friends and benefactors had died, some of his brother monks had fallen ill. The news inevitably reached Vivekananda much later than the events. Whenever he could he rushed to see them but many times he was too far away to make the trip. One of the most shocking news was that his favorite younger sister had committed suicide. Vivekananda mourned her death and expressed his grief in many of his letters to his friends and acquaintances. The event took place in 1891 and it is surrounded by mystery. There are some indications that she had committed sati, in her husband's funeral pyre. Vivekananda was always sympathetic to the plight of Hindu widows and this news did strike a blow close to his heart.
Beyond the Borders
Let distinctions of sex, caste, wealth, learning and the whole host of them, which are so many gateways to hell, be confined to the world alone.
If such distinctions persist in holy places of pilgrimage,
where then lies the difference between them and hell itself?
On his southward journey, while he was in Kathiawar, Vivekananda heard of the upcoming Parliament of Religions in Chicago in September of 1893. While in Belgaum he definitely showed interest in attending the meeting. But when the ruler of Mysore, Chamaraja Wadeyar offered to bear the expenses, he refused as he was still uncertain. Then he had an epiphany like experience during his three days of meditation in Kanyakumari (on a rock abutting the ocean ' now called the Vivekananda rock). There he felt he came face to face with the Goddess at the famous shrine, he made up his mind once and for all that he would go to Chicago.
Following his continuation of trip through Madurai, Rameshwaram and Pondicherry he reached Madras. A devotee Alasinga Perumal by name took up his cause of collecting money for his upcoming trip. He went from door to door to collect the much needed funds. Meanwhile, Vivekananda went to visit his devotee, the Raja of Khetri. The Rani had given birth to a son and they both felt that this could only happen because of the blessings by the swami.
Interestingly, all this while when he was touring India he had not yet assumed the name Vivekananda. He went by the name Swami Satchidananda (and sometimes Vividishananda). In May of 1893, just before he was to go to Bombay to set sail to America, Raja Ajit Singh of Khetri suggested the name Vivekananda (one with a discerning mind). It was by this name Vivekananda would be remembered by the world.
He left India from the port at Bombay without any credentials (Colonel Henry Steel Olcott of the Theosophical Society in Madras had refused to even give him an introductory letter). His 'Madras Boys' even had neglected the protocol of registering his name at the Parliament of Religions, which caused an inconvenience, when he arrived in America.
On May 31 he boarded S.S. Peninsular with a first class ticket, a silk robe and a handsome purse and headed for the New World. Almost two months later, on 25th of July, he reached Vancouver on the west coast of Canada. From there he travelled by train to Winnipeg, and then to St. Paul, Minnesota. A third train then would take him to Chicago, reaching there on 30th of July.
Soon Vivekananda found himself running short of money, while he was waiting for the Parliament of Religions conference. He also, to his dismay found out that he could not attend the meeting without credentials (from the religious authorities of Hinduism, the religion he was to represent), and it was too late to do so. He also found living in Chicago was too expensive, with the limited resources he had with him. He had come to America with about 185 British Pounds given to him by Alasinga Perumal and an unknown amount in the purse given by the Raja of Khetri.
But it was his charismatic personality, and a series of coincidences in the next few weeks that enabled him to be recognized by even strangers, as one of the most intellectual minds they had ever met. On his way from Chicago to Boston, he chanced to meet a woman who took a fascination for the swami and his intellect. The fifty-four year old woman, Kathryn Sanborn, was no ordinary woman. She was a prominent socialite in Boston with many connections. He stayed as her guest at Metcalf, Massachusetts, where she proudly showed her handsome guest with the turban around (a magnificent specimen of manhood was how she described him). Most importantly, for Vivekananda, she knew Professor John Henry Wright from Harvard. He was the professor of Greek Studies and after meeting Vivekananda was so impressed that he made a personal recommendation to the Body of Parliament of Religion to invite Vivekananda as a delegate as, 'He is more learned than all our learned professors put together. Asking such a man to produce credentials is like asking the sun for the light with which it shines,' he wrote.
Vivekananda also became very close to James Wright's family. When he was playing with the three Wright children, he was a child himself. He stayed with the Professor for a few days and then was invited to stay with Kate Woods and her son Prince Woods. Kate Woods, a fifty-eight year old widow, was the founder of Thought and Work Club in 1891, and an author and lecturer par excellence. She had met Vivekananda at Kathryn Sanborn's house and had invited him to stay with her at Salem, Massachusetts. Vivekananda did not refuse to go to anyone's home if invited, not only because he loved the company of them but also because his financial situation demanded it.
Even before his date with destiny on September 11 at the Parliament of Religions, Vivekananda was asked to speak to various groups by his hosts. He took no time to dispel the myth that Hindu religion was a barbaric one, as Christian missionaries had painted such a picture of the religion in the west. This was not well received by local ministries and Vivekananda felt some hostility in their attitudes and manner of questions.
My ideal indeed can be put into a few words and that is:
to preach unto mankind their divinity
and how to make it manifest in every movement of life.
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